Facebook: Friend or foe to society?

By Ameen Izzadeen
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)The debate over social media regulation has reached a critical point, with the social media giant Facebook facing its biggest ever crisis in its 14 year history.
In Britain and the United States, investigations are being held to find out whether Facebook did enough to protect its users’ private data. This came after a probe by Britain’s Channel 4 television exposed that a London-based political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, improperly accessed information on 50 million Facebook users to sway public opinion. Among its clients was Donald Trump during the campaign for the United States presidential election in 2016.
With Facebook being boxed into a corner, the case for regulation is gaining momentum, in view of allegations that social media platforms are responsible for communal tensions in Sri Lanka, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, racism and terrorism in Europe and the distortion of democracy in the United States and elsewhere.
Free speech advocates lambasted the Sri Lankan Government for blocking several social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber, early this month as part of measures to curtail the spread of anti-Muslim violence. But the Government felt the week-long ban together with the imposition of the State of Emergency was a necessary evil. It appears that the Government seeks to follow the golden mean by not implementing a total ban on social media but acting on the premise — as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, despite his democracy-promoter credentials, says – that some regulation is required to obviate the negative effects of social media.
In a stricter sense, social media refer to social networking of groups or platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram to share content in the form of texts, images and videos. In a loose sense, social media can mean any interactive website and even web-based games such as Candy Crush, Pokemon Go and the highly controversial and dangerous Blue Whale challenges.
In a way limited regulation is warranted given the harm social media and internet pose to society at large. Social media breed social ills ranging from pornography and paedophelia to slavery, drug trade, racism and terrorism. With porn just a click away, children are exposed to adult material at the tender age of about 10, leading to the breakdown of society in the long run. A satanic world also exists within the World Wide Web, which was, paradoxically, hailed as the gateway to a knowledge-based society when it first made its presence felt. Good and evil exist side by side.
What is scarier is that you are being watched. Through your smart phones and even your smart television, information about you, your behaviour patterns and the websites you visit are harvested and relayed backed to device producers and marketers. The danger is more, if you are a social media user. Needless to say hackers have a field day. Our privacy has been seriously compromised.
The cyber world is huge. It has been called the largest unregulated and uncontrolled domain in human history. There has been little international effort to adopt global standards on cyberethics. On the contrary, cybersecurity has been discussed extensively by nations as nuclear systems and strategic databases are hacked in uncontrolled cyberwars. Cyberethics receive little attention, even as the digital world scrambles to embrace Artificial Intelligence which will make wars and conflicts more inhumane. The growing demand for techno-species such as sexbots indicates that even relationships are becoming inhumane.
Last month, addressing the Munich Security Conference, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres lamented over “the absence of consensus in the international community about how to regulate the so‑called Internet of things.” But his remarks came largely in the context of cybersecurity instead of cyberethics. He said the multiplicity of activities — some by States, some by different actors, and even by amateurs — and the different uses that criminal organisations and terrorist organisations are making of the web create a level of threat that is becoming higher and higher and for which we have not yet found an adequate response.
Last week, UN investigators slammed the social media giant Facebook as a “beast”, for being a carrier of hate speech that led to possible genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. When questioned about hate speech posts of Myanmar’s ultra-racist groups such as Ma Ba Tha and 969, Facebook said it suspended and sometimes removed anyone that “consistently shares content promoting hate.”
“If a person consistently shares content promoting hate, we may take a range of actions such as temporarily suspending their ability to post and ultimately, removal of their account.”
But Facebook procedure is slow. Often, the harm is done before hate-speech posts are removed. The so-called community standards Facebook is talking about in its defence are ineffective. This is evident in the rise of the far right in Europe. Facebook is the biggest culprit.
Self-regulation by social media companies does not work, as the events in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and elsewhere show. Democracies and authoritarian states alike block social media.
India regularly imposes internet blackouts whenever there are troubles in Kashmir. Pakistan bans social media during political unrests and when its requests for the removal of religiously sensitive material are ignored. In China, where Facebook remains blocked from 2009, the state decides on the access to social media. Iran, North Korea, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Vietnam are among 18 nations that have blocked or temporarily restricted access to Facebook and other social media platforms to suppress political dissent or control protests.
True, social media enable families and friends to stay in touch. To their credit, social media have played a big role in ending dictatorships, as happened in Egypt.
Governments cannot afford to block websites and social media, because e-commerce is a digital era reality. Also the cyber anarchists are one-step ahead of state authorities and regulations and keep devising various apps to circumvent blocks and bans.
Given the vastness of the social media, regulating them is a terabyte task. Yet, it will do a world of a good if companies such as Facebook and Twitter enhance self-regulation and make it effective. On Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologised for making mistakes that led to millions of Facebook users having their data exploited by Cambridge Analytica. The same Zuckerberg had earlier dismissed as “pretty crazy idea” reports that claimed fake news on Facebook influenced the US presidential election in favour of Trump. Facebook’s role in alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election is being investigated by Special Investigator Robert Mueller. The controversy has generated congressional moves to bring legislation to control political ads on social media.
Instead of apologies, what is required is the adoption by social media companies of high ethical standards to combat hate-speech, racism, pornography, terrorism and political manipulation that distorts democracy. In this context, an international covenant on cyberethics is indeed in order. We are not advocating an infringement of the freedom of expression. This freedom is, in any case, not absolute. We only underscore that freedom comes with responsibility.

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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